Where do the Conservatives go from here?

PB Account Manager Thomas Doughty writes…

Tom Doughty

Ever since the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the question of our membership within the European club has plagued the Conservative Party. As the EU has grown in stature, with its own currency, parliament, flag, national anthem and plans for an army, so too has the split within the UK’s oldest and most successful party.

It’s a question that many Conservatives will have hoped would be put to bed following the vote to leave the European Union in 2016. Finally, the people had decided that we were to leave and the Conservatives would be the ones to carry it out.

There has been a widely accepted view ever since 24thJune 2016 that if the Conservatives did not act the will of the people, they would face electoral oblivion.

Michael Portillo, the former Conservative Minister, recently wrote in the Times: “Thanks to him (Nigel Farage), most Conservative Brexiteers and Remainers are united by one thing alone: a shared belief that if the Tory government does not deliver something that can be described as leaving the EU, it will be annihilated in a general election.”

But what if we all got it wrong? What the Tory party is facing oblivion even without an election?

Last week, during the most absurd and dramatic scenes in Parliament that many of us will have ever seen, 24 Conservative MPs were either purged by the Prime Minister or resigned the whip of their own accord. The Conservative Party is more split than ever: Boris Johnson’s hard line Brexit stance which hoovered up grassroots support is pitted against the more Europhile wing of Tory MPs who refuse to leave the EU without a deal, with those who just want to get on with it stuck in the middle.

During Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, it was clear that the Brexit debate was becoming polarised. Mrs May’s deal, designed to find compromise, did quite the opposite. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected, the options available to those on all sides have dwindled down to no deal vs remain, essentially a re-run of the 2016 referendum, whilst MPs argue with increasing fervour over which one the country should pursue.

This polarisation has made instilling discipline difficult for the Conservatives, who have seen power in Parliament prove to be ethereal. In the long run this will make a difference to MP behaviour. Those MPs in safe seats on both sides of the House may find themselves showing more loyalty to their local associations and constituencies in order to maintain support, even if this means defying the Party whip.

On the flip side, it is possible that political parties will take more strident steps to discipline rebels. It has been pointed out that Jacob Rees-Mogg has voted against the Conservative Party whip over 90 times, yet he now sits on the front bench whilst long standing Conservative MPs who have rebelled once now find themselves cast out.

Could this new hard line with rebels carry on beyond Brexit and ultimately change the Conservative Party as we know it?

The need to control MPs who see themselves as more independent could well lead to more expulsions in the future. This would be a significant change to the nature of Parliament: previously rebelling against the whip meant you moved down the pecking order for future Ministerial posts and Select Committee chairmanships, and were generally treated with scorn by the whips office for a time. Now, it could mean the end of your time in Parliament. But some MPs are showing they are simply not prepared to go along with Boris Johnson’s mission to take the UK out of the European Union at whatever cost.

So what to do about the breakdown in discipline?

The European question has become so febrile within the Conservative Party that under Theresa May, discipline disappeared altogether. And in his efforts to overcome this, with aggressive purging of rebels, Boris Johnson has arguably shifted the balance too far the other way.

Strangely, it is not the looming election which is expected to bring about a Conservative downfall. In fact, going into a possible snap election, many polls suggest the Conservatives would bring home a majority, despite Brexit not having happened yet. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary situation is the opposite – Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s Governments have been defeated almost 40 times in the Commons, including the most comprehensive Government defeat of all time.

Perhaps this is all happening because the stakes are so high. Maybe, once the UK has left the European Union, normality will return to the Conservative benches. But there is a risk now that the Conservative Party will be irreparably damaged from within before we even get there.